Monday, April 10, 2017

Genesis 12:10-20 : Abram’s First Trials as a Man called of God

The story of Abraham in Genesis 12-25 is filled with many profound truths upon which our faith is built. Indeed, I want to say that this portion of Scripture is the "Gospel according to Abraham”. Think about that for a moment. What is the Gospel? It is the Word of God’s covenant love made personally known to an undeserving sinner. That is how the gospel of God came to Abraham. God, in His free, sovereign love chose to manifest Himself to Abraham, an undeserving pagan from Ur, telling Him that he would become the father of many people in the world. These, like Abraham, would be endowed with the gospel gift of faith to believe in the One Living and True God of the Universe. 

However, as we read the story of Abram’s faith and walk with God, we begin  to notice very soon that this loving call to belong to God does not come without some severe challenges. Behind us we have 11 chapters of Genesis. Beginning with Chapters 1 and 2 – the  good creation of the world,  follows the fall of man in Genesis 3. Here  we find the beginning of our many challenges.  Before the fall, man had only one challenge, “You may eat of every tree in the garden, but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat of it you shall surely die.” [Gen. 2:17]  

A flood of problems follows after the fall. Life has become, as we would say, “complicated”. Life following the fall is filled with trials. Even believers are not spared from the effects of the fall and from trials. We shall learn that Abram and his offspring, men and women of faith are kept by grace alone and helped by Almighty God through their various trials.

So then, we have the story of Abraham before us. Last time we considered the call of Abram. At that time we had noted that Abram had not been looking for God! God was looking for Abram. Furthermore, Abram did not dream his own dreams for the future. He did not write his own job description. 
God’s mission became his mission: “Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land  that I will show you. And I will make of you a great nation…” [12:1,2]   

A great promise! But it will all happen in the context of many trials for Abram.  The first trial was the fact that Sarai his wife could not have children [11:30]. The next trial was that he would have to leave his country, his familiar surroundings and his family to go to a foreign and distant land.  Following this there would be the great rigors associated with trekking 1500 kilometres to the place of promise in Canaan. Canaan would be occupied by a hostile, evil people upon whom a Divine curse had been made in Genesis 9:25.  But there would still be more! God is testing the man whom He has called. He is testing him at the very core of his being, namely with regard to His promises made to Abraham:

(i)                 In terms the promise made with regard to his offspring, the obstacle is a barren wife.
(ii)          In terms of  the promised  land the obstacle is  that  he has hardly arrived when  he has  to leave  for Egypt, because  of the severe famine. In fact, we shall learn that he is never really able to settle down in the land of Canaan.  Hebrews 11 reminds us that Abram died without the promises of God being fulfilled to him with regard to the physical land of Canaan.
(iii)             In terms of the promise that he would be a blessing to the nations, he saw very little of it. He received the promise by faith, and with hindsight we know that God did honour his faith in generations to come.   

In every promise made to Abram, God tests him. We need to grasp the significance of this.  The God who calls us into His loving covenant tests our faith through many trials. Jesus said that we must enter the kingdom of God through many sufferings.  Our trials are not designed to make us fail, but to purify us and to show us that, in the end, we stand by grace alone and not by our own goodness and efforts. We learn that it is not our ability to successfully pass every trial  that makes us acceptable to God. Rather, we learn that the gracious  hand of God continues to lead us, enabling  us to persevere with Him  through the many  complexities of life, despite our many  our failures.  I have known this for many years, but oh, how little I still understand this!  

We learn that in the midst of Abram’s failings, God persevered with Abram, and we know that Abram did persevere to the end. We need to know this, because God tests and matures us in exactly the same way today, and that sets the stage for the incident that we see here.

Abram has to learn what we all need to learn with such great difficulty -  to trust God  and to put no confidence in the flesh. He and we  must learn   that  we cannot  have children of promise, we cannot possess this land, we cannot be a blessing to the world without the help of God. He has to learn to live by trusting in God alone.

V.10  A Famine  leads Abraham into  Temptation

"Now there was famine in the land. So Abram went down to Egypt to sojourn there for the famine was severe in the land."  Here comes a trial of faith. Did God bring   Abram here, only to let him and his people of the promise die of hunger?  Surely not!  There is something greater behind this, and the greater plan was this testing and strengthening Abram’s faith. Faith is both a  free gift of God and  at the same time  it is something that needs to be developed in each true believer. Very often we learn only through our mistakes and our failures.  The decision to go to Egypt was a mistake!  Remember that God had called him out of Ur and then out of Haran to start a new community, by taking possession of the land of cursed Canaan. He was to leave his country, his people and  his father’s household and  become the father of  a new way of living and thinking under the direction of YAHWEH.   
His promised land was Canaan and not Egypt. Now you may ask, “but what do you do when there is a famine in the land?” Is that not what Jacob did? Did he not settle in Egypt at the time of another famine in order to survive. Isn’t that  a responsible action (Gen. 47)?  
Well, maybe at face value, but it appears that God intended to show Abraham the nature of His faithfulness IN and THROUGH the drought in Canaan. I also remind you that Jacob’s going to Egypt did not prove to be an ultimate blessing to the nation.  We have to be very careful in being tempted to escape short term problems, for they often produce more problems than they solve. God is committed to His people in their hardships. He is committed to providing for them their daily bread, as He did when He led His people out of Egypt back to Canaan in the day of Moses. You will remember that daily miracles were the order of the day as God’s many people moved through waterless and barren deserts.  Would God not provide through the drought? Would He not hear prayer for daily bread? Would the rain not finally come and end the drought, as has happened here in Namibia at this time, in response to the pleas of many of our people? 

It seems that Abram did not trust God in this trial.  And in so doing he almost lost his wife and his life!  He did not gather Sarai and Lot and all the people with him saying, “Now we must pray for God’s daily provision until He finally sends the rains and end this terrible drought and famine?”  Instead, Abram looked to Egypt, the bread-basket of that region at this time. Egypt  remained  a great  temptation for the people of God at all times. 
Isaiah the prophet in Isaiah 30:1-3 had to remind the people of his day: “Woe to the obstinate children, declares the LORD, ‘to those who carry out plans that are not mine, forming an alliance, but not by my Spirit, heaping sin upon sin; who go down to Egypt without consulting me; who look for help to Pharaoh’s protection, to Egypt’s shade for refuge. But Pharaoh’s protection will be to your shame, Egypt’s shade will bring you disgrace”.

The tendency to want to solve our problems by taking shortcuts is ever with us.  We find ourselves often in the same predicament as did Abram. The Gospel of Jesus has found us in our pagan places. We have heard the call of Jesus to follow Him, and that is where faith is challenged. Jesus calls us to love Him more than we love this world. He calls us to live as citizens of heaven. He calls us to live in faithfulness, obedience, perseverance to him despite our trials. He intends to grow us through these. Is that not what James has in mind in Chapter 1:2-4?  
But we are so very tempted to take shortcuts in our life with Christ. We seek solutions that sound so very reasonable, but which if you think about it, encumber us and enslave us rather than truly help us. Abram is trying to find his own way out of a dilemma.  He is trusting the Lord, but a man has to live,  doesn’t he?  Can you see how quickly our faith  can be undone?
And so, Abram, went to Egypt, and  as he went away from the famine in Canaan, his worries started to increase in Egypt! 
That wasn’t supposed to happen, right?  
But, knowing something about the culture of the Egyptians (and the  heart of man in general)  and their fancy for pretty women, what would the Egyptians do with his beautiful wife? And so he starts planning and scheming to evade a new problem [vv.  11-13]. 
And, sure enough, it happens! [vv 14-16
His plan to survive is back-firing. 
His life is now in greater danger in Egypt than it was back in the famine of Canaan. Sarai, who he  deceitfully  presented as his sister,  is now in the hands of another  man. And in her place he received sheep, oxen, male and female donkeys, male and female servants and camels” (v.16). He has lost Sarai and gained animals.   But in reality he has lost the most important person in relation to the fulfilment of the covenant blessing. He literally had no future without Sarai.  Without her, the wife of his covenant,  there could be no future blessing.

How can this poor decision be reversed?

How can God make Abram  into a great nation now?  How is  the Messianic line  going to develop?  How  will Jesus, the Messiah, born of the line of David, in the ancestry of Abraham come? 

Answer:  God intervenes! If God did not constantly intervene in our lives, picking us up when we fall, bringing us back when we go  astray, patiently bearing with our unbelief, forgiving our sins and restoring our souls – then what helpless, hopeless men and women we would  be? 

BUT  THE LORD v.17   Thank God for the great  But's  of the Bible!  God, through painful plagues revealed to Pharaoh  that Sarai was in fact Abram’s wife, and what Pharaoh was doing here stood in the way of God’s great plan.  I remind you  that God did say to Abram,  as he was about  to leave the city  of Ur,  “I will bless those  who bless you, and him who dishonours you I will curse…”  (v.3). 
These were not empty words. God’s promise stood.  And so Pharaoh and Abram learned a very big lesson that  day. Pharaoh had  the wisdom not to strive with God , and we learn that Abram is no hero. He is a weak man, BUT he is a chosen  son of God , and that fact makes  the big difference.
And so,  the thing that needs to happen, happens. 

Chapter 13:1 reads, “So Abram went up from Egypt… into the Negeb “… back into Canaan, the land of promise,  where he belonged.  The incident has a happy ending, yes, but it is obtained by the humiliation of Abram and the discovery of the weakness of his unbelieving heart.

This part of Abram’s life  is not recorded to encourage you to  think  that you  may sin so  that grace may abound. It is written to remind us that we all have hearts like Abram, hearts that seek shortcuts, hearts which doubt the  goodness  and faithfulness of God. This  is written  to remind us that God loves  His people and that He extends grace to us,  despite  ourselves. 

God is determined  to save His people, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against them.  Our unbelief will not stop the advance of God’s kingdom. And it is all ultimately rooted in the depths of His covenant love  for us. 
And that love  was made known to us  supremely in Jesus  Christ  who laid down His life for ALL our sin!  Amen. 

Sunday, April 2, 2017

Acts 12 : “Herod versus God and God versus Herod“

Our story is that of a very unequal contest.  But Herod did not think so! This is the story of the human beings created in the image of God, but corrupted by the fall, who have gone in search of many schemes [Eccl. 7:29].  Our biggest self- deception is that we can be stronger or smarter than God. The ability of man to think that he can be the master of his destiny and that he can  think that he is invincible before his Creator is addressed in this text. The key players in our text are Herod, Peter, the church and God.  But the  contest at face value is essentially between Herod and the church of Jesus Christ, the bride of the Lamb of God. It is , I say , an unequal contest.


The name ‘Herod’ will be familiar to a Bible reader. There are, however at least four Herod’s who need to be   distinguished.  Herod is a name used by several kings belonging to the Herodian Dynasty of the Roman province of Judaea.

(i) Herod the Great (born c. 74, ruled 37–4 B) [FOUNDER OF  THE DYNASTY]:   Builder of the second temple.  He was ruling in Jerusalem when the 3 wise men came looking for the one who was born “King of the Jews” (Matt. 2:1-17).  He was the killer of the baby boys, seeking to destroy the newly born “King of the Jews.”

(ii)  Herod Antipas (born 21 BC, ruled 4 BC–AD 39), tetrarch of Galilee and Peraea [SECOND GENERATION] :  He beheaded John the Baptist (Mk 6:14-29) and he is the one before whom Jesus stood trial (Lk. 23:7-12).

(iii) Herod Agrippa I: (born c. 11 BC, ruled AD 41–44), king of Judaea.[THIRD GENERATION]  He is the Herod of our text, who killed James and who put Peter in prison. He is this Herod who was eaten by worms and died.

(iv) Herod Agrippa II: (born AD 27, ruled 48–c. 92), ruled Chalcis, then parts of Herod the Great's kingdom  [FOURTH GENERATION] :  This is the one before whom Paul will stand trial  in Acts 25:13-32.

The introductory words, About that time Herod the king laid violent hands on some who belonged to the church” (12:1)    provide a link  with  the preceding chapters.  The gospel is beginning to make its presence strongly felt, following the stoning of Stephen (Ch. 7), the powerful preaching of Philip in Samaria (Ch.8),the  conversion of Saul (Ch. 9) and  the  spreading of the gospel into gentile territories  (Ch. 10,11), the highlight being the wonderful work of God reported upon  in the Church at Antioch in Syria.

It was about  that  time that James, the brother of John (part of  the inner circle of Jesus) was  killed by Herod in Jerusalem [12:1] , and  when Peter was imprisoned  with the intention to have him killed after the Passover.   The reason why Herod did this, we are told, is that he saw that it pleased the Jews [12:3].  The growing influence of the church of Jesus Christ   began to  unnerve the leadership of the Jews, and they decided to turn this into a political  game, accusing Christians  of all sorts of things, and mainly claiming that they were opponents of the Roman government, by  maintaining that in Jesus   they had chosen another King to rule over them.   When Herod began to buy into their  game, by having James executed, Herod’s political popularity suddenly increased,   and Herod was very pleased about that. He was a politician after all.  

Peter’s fate was soon to follow, but there was one problem.  The Feast of Unleavened Bread, which immediately follows Passover, had begun.  Being a religious holiday, this was not a good time to execute Peter. They would have to wait until the feast was over.   Remember, that Peter had been in prison before   [5:17-25], and had escaped. So, now extra cautionary measures were taken to insure that this would not happen again.  Four squads of soldiers guarded him! There were first and second guards, to make sure that he were kept securely [12:10]. In addition he was chained to two guards.  Humanly speaking Herod made sure that there would be no escape for Peter.

2. THE CHURCH AND HER  GOD  [ 12:5b-17]

In the meantime the church was not idle.  “Earnest prayer for him  was made to God  by the church”  [12:5,12]. God will have to do something extraordinary to get Peter out of this prison.  And He will, and He  does so by means of an angel !  The guards seem  to have no  awareness  concerning what is happening . In the midst of this  the angel gives Peter  instructions to get dressed , put on his sandals and wrap his cloak around him,  just like a man who gets out of bed in the morning, and he walks out of this heavily guarded prison, unhindered! In fact it all seemed unreal to Peter, until he came to himself  [12: 9-11]. It all seemed like a dream, like a vision (see also 10:9ff).   So, Peter left the prison unhindered, and when it all dawned on him, we are told “ … when Peter came to himself, he said, now I know that the Lord has sent his angel and rescued me from  the  hand of Herod.”  Only after he was out of prison  did Peter understand  that his experience was real.  And Peter knew himself to be in the hand of a sovereign Lord who had  orchestrated the  escape from beginning to end. He was delivered by the Lord’s angel, not only from Herod’s hand, but also from what the Jewish people were expecting. It is not just Herod who has set himself in opposition to the church, and thus to our Lord; it is the Jewish leadership as well.

In the meantime, we  find  the church at prayer for Peter. This story   has a humorous side to it.Notice the ironic contrast between the ease  with which Peter seems to get  out of prison, and the difficulty of getting into the prayer meeting  at the  house of Mary ! He knocked on the door of the house, where the church was praying and Rhoda, a servant girl went to answer.  She immediately knew it was Peter, but left the door closed and locked and told the good news to those who had gathered for prayer, but could not convince them that their prayers had actually been answered!  They said to her, “You are out of your mind!”  [12:15].  This does make me wonder just what they were praying for, and what they were hoping  for  at this point in time?

Peter persisted in knocking until they let him in, at which time he explained how God had rescued him.  He then instructed them to inform James , i.e. James, the Lord’s brother who  was recognised as the leader of the Jerusalem church, [1]  and “the brothers”  (his fellow-apostles), and then he, too, went to another place, where no doubt they could not be found by Herod or the leaders of the Jews. 


So then, imagine the consternation of the soldiers and Herod the next day [12:18].  What conclusion did they come to, since nobody at this time was thinking that it was actually  God that was actually fighting against them?  They thought that this was an “inside job.” Peter’s empty cell was as impossible to explain as the empty tomb!  So, when  Herod could find no other explanation he had the guards all executed. This is very ironic! The guards who would have led Peter to trial, and then to his death, were now being led away to their death, while Peter was alive and free. You cannot fight against God.  Many people in history tried it, a and lost!  

And Herod left to go to Caesarea [12:19].  An deeply fascinating and awesome event follows now, all woven into the ordinary happenings of time and history. In   12:20-22 we read of the people of Tyre and Sidon on the coast of Phoenicia   with whom Herod had been angry. These people were dependent upon Herod for their food supply, and since the rift had occurred in their relationship they were eager to mend that  relationship with him. They had lobbied with Blastus, the king’s personal assistant, so that he persuaded Herod to give them a hearing.  Herod appeared before the people with royal  pomp and ceremony, at  which time he also gave a speech. The people of Tyre and Sidon, desperate for reconciliation began to  flatter the king  with inappropriate language.  The people were shouting,  “The voice of a god, and not of a man!” [12:22]

How different is the situation later in Acts 14:8-18 where  we find a similar situation. Here   Paul and Barnabas  are proclaimed to be gods, but what a very different response  do we find from these servants of God!  Paul and Barnabas immediately calmed them down and explained that they were merely men and not God, and  drew their attention  to the true God who made the Heavens and the earth, whose spokesmen they were.   Herod, by contrast  revelled in the  praise given  to him. And so, he  who was trying  to  receive worship  and praise  from men, he who opposed God by opposing His church was now struck  by an angel of the Lord with an illness, so that he was eaten by worms and died.  And that was the end of Herod.   Dr  A. Rendle Short, professor of surgery at Bristol  University  wrote a book  entitled, ”The Bible and modern Medicine” .  He said , “  a great many people in Asia harbour  intestinal worms, which can form a tight ball and cause acute  intestinal obstruction.” This may have been the cause of Herod’s death.

SUMMARY : Acts 12:24-25

Our story began with  a very real threat  and some terrible consequences against the church of our Lord  Jesus  Christ. For a little  while we thought  that  Herod might  finish  off the church by killing her leadership. But God, not Herod had the final word. The final words of our text tell us that the Word of God triumphed. Herod could not stop the progress of the gospel. He could not destroy the progress of the church. In fact, the next few chapters of Acts will demonstrate an even greater spread of the gospel as the gospel  expands  into the Greek and  Roman world and beyond.

Last time I mentioned  the name of  Justin the Martyr (100AD – 165AD), so called because he was killed  for his faith. He   wrote concerning the spread of the Christian faith,  “…We have exchanged our swords for plowshares, our spears for farm tools…now we cultivate the fear of God, justice, kindness, faith, and the expectation of the future given us through the Crucified One….The more we are persecuted and martyred, the more do others in ever increasing numbers become believers.”
Jesus said  to  Peter, "I will build my church and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it"  [Matt 16:18]. Our text powerfully illustrates that God is sovereign over history – His story!  He is sovereign over His church. This is one of the great themes of Acts, and indeed of the Bible.  
Listen to these words written by John Stott: “The chapter opens with James dead, Peter in prison, and Herod triumphing; it closes with Herod dead, Peter free and the Word of God triumphing.” [2]


What about James?  Why was  James was executed while Peter was  allowed to live? After all, Peter, James, and John were all  a part of the “inner circle”  of Jesus. [3]  James died first. John died last. Each of these three had the same exposure to Jesus.Why would God “waste” His efforts on James by allowing his premature death? The  answer is that no one  dies prematurely!  James’  death at this  time was instrumental in the progress of the gospel, as we can see in the case of Stephen’s death. In the final analysis, we must rest in the sovereignty of God, knowing that He purposed this for His good pleasure. God is God, and thus He can do as He sees fit. The explanation may only be revealed to us in heaven.

[1]  Acts 15:13; 21:18 ; Gal. 1:19, 2:9,12
[2] John Stott : Acts , BST series , p. 213
[3] Matthew 17:1; 26:37: Mark 5:37

Monday, March 27, 2017

Genesis 11:27 - 12:9 "The Call of Abram"

A year ago, we ended our studies in the first 11 Chapters of   Genesis.  We shall now consider the next section in Genesis 12 - 25, under the general heading, ‘Lessons from the  life of Abraham’. Today  we want to simply  focus on the  call of Abraham, who was originally called Abram[1].

The story of Abraham begins actually in Chapter 11:27: “Now these are the generations of Terah. Terah fathered Abram, Nahor and Haran; and Haran fathered Lot…”. At the head of the families in this section is Terah, not Abram. We would have expected Abraham to lead this new section, since after all, he shall be the father of the Hebrew nation as well as the father of the greater family of faith which will include the gentiles.[2] But Terah is mentioned as the first patriarch. The reason for this is that Terah was not only the father of Abram, but he was also the grandfather of Lot (the son of Haran, one of Abram’s two brothers. He was also the great grandfather of Rebekah, Isaac’s wife, and the great-great grandfather of Leah and Rachel, the wives of Jacob. The roots of the nation of Israel revolve around what Terah produced.[3]  But Abram is undoubtedly the main character of these chapters. 

He was born approximately 2000 years before Christ, and 4000 years from where we find ourselves today in history. He was born in Ur of the Chaldeans (11:28), also known sometimes as the Land of Sumer and Mesopotamia, the land between two rivers, the Euphrates and the Tigris. Ur was once a port city on the river Euphrates and was situated near the Persian Gulf. Ur was located in today’s modern Iraq. The whole region has silted up since then. Ur has a very old history. Archaeologists have discovered the evidence of an early occupation at Ur (ca. 6500 to 3800 BC).  “These early levels were sealed off with a sterile deposit of soil that was interpreted by excavators of the 1920s as evidence for the Great Flood of the Book of Genesis”. [4]  One of the famous structures, dating back to the time of Abraham is the Ziggurat at Ur, a huge structure like the pyramids of Egypt.  The evidences point to a series of advanced civilizations. But the structures did not serve to glorify Yahweh, the living God.  The Ziggurat was built in honour of the moon god. Joshua makes mention of the fact that Abram’s family worshipping other gods [Josh. 24:2,15].
Before we get to the 12th chapter it is important to note that Terah and his family had set out for Canaan (11:31), but on the way there they settled in Haran, about 900 kilometres northwest of Ur. Haran was also a strategic trading centre, also noted for its worship of the moon god. Stephen,   the martyr tells us in Acts 7:2 that Abram’s call had come to him in Mesopotamia, in Ur before he had come to Haran.   Haran was not to be the place for Abraham and his offspring. God’s original purpose was for him to settle in Canaan.  Many set out on a journey and never arrive  at their destination, the promised land. Many a person has begun  a Christian  pilgrimage only to get stuck in a place or position  where they never get further in their walk with Jesus. But Abram does not get stuck in Haran. He leaves his father Terah and his extended family behind, and accompanied by his wife, Sarai  and servants  and his  nephew Lot,  he heads for the  land of promise. And so Genesis 12 becomes an important,   pivotal passage in Genesis.  All that follows from here will have a huge effect upon the world.  
This section then begins with a divine calling. God called a man named Abram, a pagan man living in a pagan culture, a man who wasn’t looking for YAHWEH, the true God of the Universe.  But God was looking for Abram, and  He calls him, and this becomes the pattern of God’s dealings with His chosen people. All God’s children are sought out by God, chosen by God, and born of God. [John 1:12,13]  No one decides to be born. No one gives birth to themselves. And so it is with the spiritual birth. God always initiates the process. He calls His people with an irresistible call, and they respond. This was true of   all the famous leaders of the Bible ….Isaac, Jacob, Moses, Samuel, David, Mary, the mother of our Lord Jesus, and Elizabeth, the mother of John the Baptist. It was true of the apostles whom Jesus called one by one and by name. It was true of Paul the apostle, called on the road to Damascus, not very far from   the ancient city of Haran.  This call is also true of every believer in history. It is true for you and me who have saved by the Lord Jesus and believed in the Lord Jesus.  God calls us in many ways. 

  • The North African church father Augustine (354- 430 AD) hearing children reading words from a book in a garden, was led to read the Scriptures which convicted him of sin and which led him to confess the Name of Jesus.  
  • Martin Luther first called upon God in a thunderstorm.  This  produced a series of events   which led to his conversion.
  • John Newton, in 1748 aboard a slave ship encountered a severe storm off the coast of Donegal, Ireland and almost sank. Newton awoke in the middle of the night and, as the ship filled with water, he called out to God. The cargo shifted and stopped up the hole, and the ship drifted to safety. Newton marked this experience as the beginning of his conversion to Christ. 
  • Your own testimony may not be as dramatic in its beginnings. The call of God may have come to you at an early age through the faithful testimony and prayer of your parents or grandparents.  But it always begins with that particular call from God. This is the mystery of the doctrine of election- a theme  that is found through the entire Bible!    
Abraham was 75 years old when God called him and his wife Sarai to leave Haran to go to the land of Canaan.  And so we read:  “So Abram left, as the Lord had told him” (12:4).  He did three things: He left his country, his kindred, and his father’s household.  (12:1).

A word of caution. Sensitive Christians, wanting to be obedient to the Lord sometimes struggle with a text such as this. How do we apply this text to ourselves?  Does this mean that you must be like Abram, when you become a Christian?  Does this mean that you have to leave your home, friends and country and move somewhere else? I hope to offer you some helpful counsel. In the first place understand that you are not Abram. His calling was a unique calling. God had a unique work for Abram.  He was going to become the father of a new nation called Israel. But more than that, he was going to become the father of all true believers through the ages.   

But there are some principles that do apply to us:

1.   We all have to leave, what John Bunyan in his Pilgrims Progress called, the ‘City of Destruction’.  When we are converted we are called to walk away from our former way of life and set our hearts on pilgrimage. We set our eyes on the road that leads us to the heavenly city, the city prepared by God for those called by Him. Hebrews  11:8-10 shows how this was true  of Abraham. Now understand this. The land of Canaan is symbolic and typical  of the heavenly Jerusalem, the city that has foundations, who’s Designer and Builder is God. Having received the call from God, we must respond with repentance, by which we turn our backs on our old life, the life in the city of Destruction, and follow the way that the Lord Jesus calls us to follow. In this we become the children of Abraham, the father of faith. This does not mean that we must leave Windhoek. It means that we must leave our sinful ways. The next point will make this clearer.

2.      We leave our former friends in the city of destruction and we find our new friends in a new fellowship called the Christian church.  Here we are called to find our closest friends. They are called our brothers and sisters in Christ. They are people like us, who have heard the call of God to leave their life of sin, and to follow the Lord Jesus in the fellowship of His body, the church. These people are God’s people, and therefore they are our people. You leave behind your drinking and drug buddies, the gossips and slanderers,   and all those who are described in Galatians 5:19-21. You join the people committed to the lifestyle encouraged in Galatians 5:22,23.  We shall see a little later in our studies that when Sodom and Gomorrah were to be destroyed by God, because of their wickedness, Lot’s wife could not leave the city of destruction. Her heart longed for her former companions, and she kept looking back, and therefore she too was destroyed. This brings us to the next  point.

3.      We leave our  father’s household. Notice that Terah had actually intended to go to Canaan with his family, but they never got there because they settled in Haran (11:31). Terah never got to where God wanted the family to be. And so Abraham, who heard the clear call of God, had to move on. When we become Christians we are called to love God more than our family. That is what Jesus teaches in Matthew 10:34-39.   Although we honour our father and mother as never before when we become Christians, we can never replace that love with a greater love than we have for God. Although our families are to be loved and cherished as a gift from God, families often have  sin patterns and reluctances  to  fully serve God. The  Christian family member often feels the pain  of having to separate  from them to serve the purposes of God.


“And I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you and  will make your name great, so that  you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and him who dishonours you I will curse, and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.” [12:2,3].

The God who came to Abram, comes to him with an amazing offer of such magnitude that we can scarcely comprehend it.  Let me put it to you in simple language.
(i)                 God promises to make the family of Abram into a great nation.
(ii)         He will be uniquely blessed by God in this sinful world. Those who turn against him will experience God’s wrath on them.   God loves and protects His people.
(iii)              Abram’s influence will be seen and felt in all the families of the world. Everywhere there will be men and women of faith in every part of the world and among all nations, at all times, until the Lord Jesus comes again! Men and women of  the kind of faith that Abraham possessed  are being born again  right now in Africa, China, India, South America, etc. “All peoples on earth will be blessed through you” (v.3).

We pass over a few details and we come to v.6.   Abram meets the Canaanites.  There will be huge battles between his grandchildren and theirs in time to come. This land was the region settled by the descendants of a man called Canaan. We have met him before in Genesis 9:25. He was the cursed son of Ham. Canaan’s offspring became a most evil civilization, steeped in idol worship and cruelty and depravity.   This was the land that YAHWEH called Abram to possess.   He did that by building altars in key places. He did it in Shechem (v.7). He did it near Bethel (v.8). These altars were like stakes in the ground or beacons   in the whole land, saying that this land belonged to YAHWEH and his called out people. 
God honoured Abram’s faith. Almost a thousand years later the descendants of Abram were living in the land. They had been led into it and had conquered it under Joshua. He made his final speech to them just before he died, and where did he make it? Under the great oak tree still standing there in Moreh. (Josh. 24:25-28).  
YAHWEH triumphs over the pagans!  Abram had left his mark on this land. But Abram would not become the ruler of this land. His offspring would. And that is a story that waits to be told at another time.

REVIEW AND SUMMARY : The Call of Abraham

From our text we have learned  concerning

1.      the irresistible  call to belong to God
2.      the call to be obedient to God
3.   the call to trust God  with his future dealings in the world. God’s promises are certain and faithful. Do not be intimidated by the times that you are living in.  Ur  and Sodom  are symbolic of all the evil civilizations that  now lie buried in the   sands of time.

Amen !

[1] Abram : Not a spelling mistake!  Abram means  “exalted father”.  In Chapter 17:5  we shall see that God renames him Abraham, “ father of a multitude”
[2] See Romans 4
[3] Philip Eveson: The Book of Origins ,p.244
[4] ;  UR: The first Phases  – Sir Leonard Wooley, p.13 ( King Penguin Books, 1946)

Monday, March 20, 2017

Acts 11:19-30 “ Antioch - This Is What a healthy Church Looks Like!"

We  now take a look  at the amazing expansion of the church, as  she  grows   in leaps and bounds,  now even beyond the borders of Judea and Samaria, and  now literally to the uttermost parts of the earth! Truly speaking, the church of God is unstoppable. 
What is true of Exodus  1:12 is true of the church: But the more they were oppressed, [i.e the Israelites by the Egyptians] the more they multiplied and the more they spread abroad.“
Justin the Martyr (100AD – 165AD), so called because he was killed  for his faith,  wrote concerning the spread of the Christian faith,  shortly after the apostolic fathers had all died:  “We ourselves were well conversant with war, murder and everything evil, but all of us throughout the whole wide earth have traded in our weapons of war. We have exchanged our swords for plowshares, our spears for farm tools…now we cultivate the fear of God, justice, kindness, faith, and the expectation of the future given us through the Crucified One….The more we are persecuted and martyred, the more do others in ever increasing numbers become believers.”

"I will build my church and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it", said our Lord Jesus  to Peter [Matt 16:18]. If you are a Christian, and a member of God's church, you are part of a body which carries the endorsement of God Almighty. Whatever He brings to life shall stand, for He governs the universe for His own glory and  the good of his church, the bride of the Lord Jesus Christ, God’s beloved Son. The church is  the apple of God’s eye. She is precious in God's eyes, and He loves  her so much, that He has redeemed  her  members, each one personally  by the blood of the crucified and resurrected  Jesus. And  all this reminds us  of  Genesis 3:15 -  the redemptive outflow of the promise made in the Garden of Eden,  that the seed of the woman will crush  Satan’s head. The purposes of God in bringing  a people for His own possession into existence will prevail. The gospel of Jesus will triumph. 

At face value, nothing much may be happening here in Namibia, a nation that has been privileged to have received the gospel  200 years ago, and  our nation presently shows so much spiritual hardness. But, be assured that  the Spirit of God is constantly at work in the world. And He is working in the most impossible paces and situations on earth.   This makes  the  gospel the most powerful declaration ever given to mankind!  After Pentecost (Acts 2), this message of the gospel spread like wildfire - first in Jerusalem, Judea, and Samaria - and now unto the uttermost parts of the earth.  The church  is healthy and thriving  in the midst of severe challenges.

In our passage we find a  model of a healthy  church.  It grew despite persecution and  perhaps because of persecution;  it grew in numbers; it grew in reputation; it grew in knowledge and sound doctrine; it grew in love and care.

The underlying  theological  truth is that  "the hand of the Lord  was with them." Nothing is impossible with God , and nothing is  possible without God.  I take this  fact for granted as we observe  the marks of a healthy growing church in the  case of the church at Antioch. 

As we take a look at this  expansion of the church, noting the example of  the development of the church in Antioch in particular, we note that :

1.    The church expands despite of persecution and because of persecution: In Acts 8 we noted how the  opponents of the gospel vented their anger against  the followers of Christ, particularly after Stephen, in Chapter 7  spoke very boldly  concerning the  true work of God in the  life and history  of Israel, severely rebuking  the religious authorities of his day , who promptly began to stone him to death. In  Chapter 8  and in 11:19  we  note the extent of the scattering that took place. The early Christians were basically forced out of their Jerusalem and out of their country.
This still happens today. The Middle east  is  once again being systematically purged of Christians.  The church of the last days (i.e. between Christ's ascension and His second coming  - the last 2000 years  and what is left before Jesus’ return) will grow in the midst of tribulation and suffering.  Jesus said so! [John 15:18-27; 16:33].  My friend Henry Jooste, a SIM missionary, currently in Europe working with Refugees,  wrote on Facebook  on the 10th of March: 
“One of the most amazing things we have seen, is the positive impact Churches have made in this crisis. How they have stepped up and got involved. God has been glorified as many asylum seekers, immigrants, migrants, refugees have through the love shown, the care taken, involvement in their lives, they have placed their faith in Jesus Christ alone. Many have been baptised, become members of churches and got involved in sharing their new found love with others. Lost souls saved. They say, it makes it all worthwhile. To God be all the glory."

The amazing truth is that the church been growing in this world despite persecution. It is true, that it seemed at times that her light had all but gone out ( e.g. in the Middle Ages - dark ages), but it is also true that she has not been overcome by the enemy,  because her Lord rules and reigns. Her Lord is her Saviour, and the great Shepherd of the sheep will surely bring all His chosen people home. The church will exist even in tribulation, because He is her Keeper.
It is not by human logic that we can understand the fact that the church can grow because of persecution. It is greatly comforting to know, that although Satan hates the church, and though he seeks to destroy the church, God is able to reverse his evil intentions, and turn them around for His own glory. The church can grow in the soil of trials and afflictions.  This is even true in the experience of individuals. Many people, even though they would never wish for trials, are able to testify, that their times of trial have been personal times of growth and expansion.

2.    The  church grew numerically and influentially:   A great number of people believed and turned (epistrepho)[1]  to the Lord [v.21]. The people that were scattered by the persecution,  proclaimed the gospel now not only to Jews, but to gentiles also. This point is deliberately made in vv. 19,20.  The reason given  was “ that the hand of the Lord was with them“  [v.21]. “And a great many people were added to the Lord.” [v.24]. This great revival was clearly owned of the Lord, and it happened in the worst of political times and under religious persecution!  Whilst numbers are not everything, there can be nothing more encouraging than seeing the gospel taking its effects in the lives of  so many people. We must never get cynical about numbers. At the same time we must always remember that a crowd is not an achievement, but an opportunity!

3.       It grew in reputation: Antioch was a wealthy and magnificent city, and was described as one of the "eyes" of Asia. It was the third greatest city of the Roman empire at that time (after Rome & Alexandria).She was located in Syria.  She had a large Jewish colony, but was dominated by Greek culture. The church at Antioch became  a church that people talked about in Christian circles. News reached the church in Jerusalem [v.22]. It was a church with a positive testimony, provided here by Barnabas: “He saw  the grace of God and he was glad.” [v.23]. And,  very  significantly , this church was the first one with which the name of the Lord Jesus Christ became identified. It was hear that the disciples were first  called Christians [v.26]. The church is Christ's body and the body of a man goes by the same name as the head. The church's reputation was of such a nature that the people that surrounded them, clearly saw them, and gave them the nickname "Christians". That was their reputation. Can people see that we are Christians by the way in which we behave?

4.       It grew in knowledge and depth of doctrine. It was a church under the influence of good teaching and sound doctrine. Here was a church that was willing and hungry to be taught.  It caught the attentive eyes and ears of Barnabas, whose name translates as “son of encouragement”. He saw the need for further teaching. Immediately he set out to correct this situation, and went to find Paul  in Tarsus. Barnabas, by all accounts was a gracious and a humble man, and he knew that Paul possessed something which he did not. Paul had a powerful, logical and able mind. He had been taught by Gamaliel,  a biblical scholar and teacher of reputation. But more than that, Paul received a profound understanding of Christ, whose servant he became and whom he proclaimed everywhere.  Wherever  Paul  went, he preached Jesus, and so he did to the to the people of Antioch: Jesus in His divine nature ; Jesus  in His human nature; Jesus in His various offices as prophet, priest and king; Jesus Christ as the only hope for mankind!  Something very important happened here as a result of the doctrinal teaching . The dividing wall of hostility between Jew and Gentile  had come down , and  a new category  of  person emerged : Christians! They are those who belong to the household of Christ. They are followers of Jesus Christ.

We are told, that together they taught  great numbers of  these  people  (vv.25 - 26) Their teaching about Christ clearly took hold of the lives to whom they preached Christ! An expanding church cannot simply expand in numbers. It must also grow in depth of the knowledge and understanding of Christ, and  what He expects of us. We must not be simply content to bear the  Name of Christ. The beauty of his Name must be seen in us! [1 Jn. 2:6 – Whoever says that he is in Christ must walk the same way as Jesus did]. Discipleship  must follow conversion!  And the fruit of  a true conversion must show itself in Christlike behaviour.

5.      It grew in love and care.  vv.27 – 30.  In response to a prophecy, that there was going to be a severe famine in the entire Roman world, which would have included Judea,  the church decided to help their brothers living in Judea, who were apparently struggling. So, this church at Antioch practically cared by sending their gift with Paul and Barnabas to Jerusalem. Good works are the overflow of a  converted heart, and so it was in the  case of the church at  Antioch 

The church  did not only grow in spiritually challenging times; it did not only grow numerically  and intellectually and spiritually, but it also grew in good works of love and kindness and care and consideration of others  in the midst of  a great famine all over the world. In the worst of times,  these Christians   were not hoarding . They were giving!

Are you encouraged?  We are living in  spiritually challenging times.  And we are living in times of drought and economic depression.  And the temptation is to draw the conclusion that the church can never flourish in this kind of society,  as it  would under more ideal circumstances. But nothing could be further from the truth, because it's in this pagan society that the Christian church in Antioch flourished,  so much so that  the pagan's  of Antioch  saw them as a distinct people: These were Christians. These were  true  followers of Jesus Christ.
Brothers and sisters  lift up your heads. In such challenging  times  the  true church of our Lord Jesus Christ   becomes  more relevant,   not less relevant. Be encouraged what God will and can do  to a church  so committed to Jesus , as  was the church at Antioch.  Amen

[1] Aorist tense indicating an immediate and decisive turning change

Sunday, March 12, 2017

Acts 10 :9-23 “Vegetarians, Pork-eaters and the Gospel“

Last time[1]  when  considering  Acts  10,  we saw that this chapter represented a  turning point in Luke’s narrative of the story of the early church. The whole story is repeated  in Acts 11, because Peter will go back to Jerusalem  to give an explanation of what has happened. We see here that the gospel is going beyond the boundaries  of Jerusalem and Judea  (i.e. the territory  of Judaism),  and beyond  the boundaries  of Samaria (the territory  of  half cast Jews),  to the ends of the earth, to the territories  of the gentiles. 

At that time I alluded to one of the  key issues addressed here,  but  did not take time to explain the transition  from  the Old Testament  food laws (cf. Leviticus 11 ;  Deuteronomy 14)[2] to the New Testament abolishment of these laws.

The key character in our story is Peter, to whom Jesus had given the keys of the kingdom (Acts 16:19). Peter is indeed the first apostle   to the gentiles. We have already seen that he had opened the kingdom to Jews on the day of Pentecost, and then to the Samaritans, and now to the  gentiles.  The transition happens here in this chapter.  Peter, who is at this time in Joppa (10:6) receives a vision from the Lord, whilst praying at the 6th hour – 12 o’clock noon. In this vision he is called to eat all sorts of animals, which according to the law would have been forbidden. Hence his reply in  10:14 - “By no means  Lord… I have never eaten anything that is common  or unclean”. However, the LORD insists a second time, and note what He says to Peter,   “What God has made clean do not call common.“ [v.15]

So, at the first level of understanding, God is saying something to Peter about   changed rules of eating. He is saying 3 times [v.16]  i.e. insistently, “Peter,  don’t question me, eat!”    The question arises, is God going against His own Word in the OT?  Or is there something more that we need to understand?  In order to determine this, we first  need to look at some other passages in the Scriptures.

The clearest instruction on this matter comes from the mouth of our Lord Jesus in Mark 7:1- 23, where He is confronting the Pharisees on the subject of what is truly “unclean” and “clean”. The Pharisees were complaining that the disciples were eating with unwashed hands, another matter unthinkable for Jews – but clearly, this is not something that Jesus was too concerned about.  He is far more concerned  about  another matter. He shows them that the expression of  true faith is not primarily a matter of handwashing or not cooking a meal on the Sabbath,   or of  eating and drinking only specific  things. Jesus was more concerned about  the  matters  of the heart. By the heart the Bible means, the seat of our mind, will and emotions.  Then He makes this very important announcement in Mark  7:15,  “Nothing outside a man   can make him unclean  by going into him. Rather it is what comes out of a man, i.e. from the inside.  He explains in v.19 that this means. The heart, the inner disposition, the will  is  the source of that which makes  a person  unclean. Then to reinforce this again, Jesus says to His disciples, “Are you without understanding….so dull? Don’t you see that nothing that enters a man from the outside can make him unclean? For it doesn’t go into His heart but into his stomach, and then out of his body.” 

Now notice what else  is said  in v.19. Jesus declared all foods clean! That means that you can eat pork, crayfish, crocodile steaks and even broccoli and Brussel sprouts with thanksgiving. That means that you can go into a foreign culture, and eat Mopani worms and other foods such as Peter had to do when he went to these gentiles, and eat that which was set before him, with thanksgiving, and without asking many questions!

Does that mean that Jesus has set aside the dietary laws of the OT? Yes it does! In fact there are many things that God sets aside under the new covenant because they are not essential to the gospel. The main thing that He sets aside under the new covenant (and this was prophesied in the OT) is the way in which God’s people were redeemed and cleansed from their guilty consciences. In the OT He accepted the sacrifices of bulls and sheep as sacrifices for sin offerings. In the NT that is not valid. Only by looking to Jesus, the Lamb of God that takes away the sin of the world (John 1: 29) are we redeemed.
In the same way, He sets aside circumcision.  The symbol of belonging to the New Covenant   people is not circumcision, but baptism, by which Jesus means believers’ baptism i.e. the baptism of those that have themselves actively believed, and not infant baptism.
Furthermore, we do not observe Passover, nor any of the Jewish feasts, do we? What feasts then do we observe? Those that  have to do with the  person and work of the Lord Jesus Christ – the gospel of Christ. 
Here is a challenge : Is your Christmas , Easter , Ascension day , Pentecost  focus  gospel centred ? Otherwise you’re back to  the  way of the Pharisees  who  put more focus on outward displays than  the heart.

A word of clarification:  The emphasis of the O.T. is not, as some would believe, on outward ceremonies. The O.T. like the N.T.  primarily focuses on God-centered thinking and behaviour. The 10 commandments, the moral law of  God,   have  to do  with God-centered living.  However the sinfulness and deviousness of the human heart  turns everything into second hand religion, focussing on  religious observance rather than  on the heart of true  worship.     The default of the  sinful human heart is to divorce  worship from God , so that we worship created things rather than the Creator who is forever to be praised and blessed (Romans 1:25) .  The truth is that at the end of the law  is Jesus.
What does it mean   when Jesus  said, “I  have not come to abolish the law and the prophets … but to fulfil  them?”  Precisely this, that the law in itself was an incomplete (temporary)   revelation , until the Son of God appeared, making everything clear , including the matter  of eating and drinking.  The same principle  can be  determined from  1 Corinthians 8

The second level of understanding of this passage has to do with Peter’s mission to the gentiles.There is obviously a connection between the eating   of  ‘unclean food ‘ and  the  association between  Jews and ‘unclean gentiles‘. Remember, that Jews as a rule never ate with gentiles. Again, it must be stressed that this was not the OT teaching.  The OT affirms time and again that all nations were in God’s purpose. There was a place for non- Jews to be integrated into the faith of Israel, as proven by Jesus’ own genealogy (Rahab and Ruth –  the gentile  women of  Matt 1:5) . Rather, this had become an extra biblical habit among the Jews. It  had become  a form of apartheid or racism,… fallen- human-  being- thinking, if you like.  This  is a lesson  about racism. It's one thing to have nice little theories about the gospel and its relationship to Gentiles when you’re in Jerusalem. It is quite another thing to actually go to the house of a Gentile and eat his food. And that's what Peter is being asked to do, and that's why he's protesting so much.
The Gospel is for EVERYONE!  There is no longer Jew nor Gentile, slave nor free[3], because we are all one in Jesus Christ, and there is only one way of salvation: By grace alone,  through faith alone in Jesus Christ alone; and whoever that person is we're all one in Jesus Christ. That was a hard lesson for Peter  and many modern Christians. Peter, though he  had made some progress in  his thinking along the way as we have seen   was now instructed to break that habit by God’s command. And old habits die hard! Paul had to rebuke him later in Galatians  2:11ff, for going back on this command,  because he  acted  hypocritically.  

God, in Christ,  had demolished  the dividing wall of hostility between  Jew and Gentile.  Jesus has  declared racism over and done with. The gospel changes everything. You can read all about that in Ephesians  2:11-22. That too changed under  the New covenant. Under  the Old Covenant, Israel developed  as a separate nation, but under the New Covenant, which was  anticipated  by the  OT,  the church would be comprised  of every nation, tribe and tongue. Heaven will be the final reality, when all nations shall assemble before the throne to praise the Lord  ( Rev 7:9ff) . So then the  eating of “unclean food “ with “unclean people”  points us  to   new realities of the kingdom. That is precisely what Peter declares in  10:28 when he confessed  before Cornelius and the assembled  gentiles : “” You yourselves know how unlawful it is for a Jew to associate with or to visit anyone of another nation, but God  has shown me that I should not call any person common or unclean. THIS IS THE DEEP  TRUTH BEHIND THIS PASSAGE !   

At face value  it may be about food, and  by their abstinence from certain food Israel distinguished themselves  from the other  nations, but the distinction really  led to so  much more – namely  racial pride and  segregation. The whole thing had to be undone!  The Jews, of whom Peter was one, had made several wrong conclusions about the food laws. One conclusion that they had drawn was that because they didn't eat pork, they were better than other people. We meet vegetarians like that, too. They believe that simply refraining from eating certain things made them superior.

In our day there is a renewed emphasis by number of people who have declared themselves to be vegetarians,  and who think that by doing so they hold the  moral high ground.  Some maintain that the eating of meat is ethically wrong, because cruelty is done to animals. There are some Christians who suggest that the symptoms of the fall is man's domination over creation rather than his empathy with it. They  would point out that prior to the fall, nothing is said about  eating meat, and that man was created to be  vegetarian.  Be that as it may. We now live in a fallen world  where anyone of us scarcely know  what it means to eat in a balanced way, and we all die  because of this. But the supreme theological fact is not  that death is caused by incorrect eating or drinking . The wages of sin is death!

Isn’t it amazing how  food has become  such a dividing  wall in society?  Halaal, kosher, vegetarian, Banting  and  thousands of other  diets. People  become great evangelists and crusaders  for  food and drink! The statistics however remain  brutal. One out of one dies, diet or no diet!  All these emphases in their own right  and without gospel focus  are ultimately misplaced , for they do not focus on the gospel  which  truly gives life.  
So, we should have no arguments with people who are vegetarians, if that's the choice that they make. But the imposition of that on the conscience of others, we do have problems with, because it imposes something on the conscience of Jesus. Jesus ate the Passover lamb, and one of the last things recorded of Jesus is that He ate fish with the disciples on the edge of the Sea of Galilee, in His resurrection body!

The biggest point concerning  food  and  related  matters is this, and Paul  said it clearly : “The kingdom of God is not  matter of eating and drinking but of righteousness  and peace and joy  in the Holy Spirit.” (Rom 14:17). We should be passionate about that. Those are gospel matters, and the development of these in our lives are more important than food or drink.  Amen !

[1] 12th  February 2017 : Acts 10 :  “The  Gospel To the Ends of the Earth “
[2] Context : Moses giving instruction to the people of God on the plains of Moab, just before they cross over the River Jordan and into the promised land. It  had little to do with hygiene. It had  to do with separating Israel from the Canaanites. It was separating Israel from the surrounding nations.

[3] Gal  3:28